Restore free accommodation for junior doctors

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Around 300 medical students from across the country held a rally on Friday before holding an overnight protest against the removal of hospital accommodation support for newly qualified junior doctors.

Thirty tents representing different UK medical schools had been set up in the grounds of Cecil Sharp House in central London ready to be occupied by students.

Medical students with £20,000 of student debt to pay off will be left an estimated £4,800 worse off as a result of this change which comes into force next month.

Addressing the gathering, Dr Hamish Meldrum, chairman of the British Medical Association (BMA) Council, said: ‘In July 2007, the Medical Act was amended to remove the requirement for first-year hospital doctors to be resident.

‘That removed their right to free accommodation.

‘Why is this such an issue? Free accommodation was recognised by the Doctors and Dentists Review Board and the government as payment in kind.

‘But after years of using it to depress newly qualified doctors’ pay, now it has been ignored in negotiating doctors’ salaries.’

He added: ‘These changes are for the worse. Junior doctors are angry.’

Calling for free accommodation to be restored, he concluded: ‘We should be valuing our junior doctors, not fleecing them.’

Ian Noble, Chairman of the BMA’s Medical Students Committee, said: ‘We are here to send a clear message to the government, the Department of Health and NHS employers that we will not be treated the way we have been.’

Accusing the government of a lack of transparency, he added: ‘The minutes from our negotiations with the Department of Health in 2004 state that the DH “recommended that the requirement for free accommodation for doctors in their first year after graduating from medical school and prior to registration be removed from the Medical Act and be placed in Terms and Conditions of Service” (TCS).

‘Further, at a later meeting in 2004, the minutes record that the “DH would amend the TCS and then the Medical Act”.

‘The agreed position always was that there would be a change in the junior doctor contract prior to the change in legislation – that accommodation would be protected, and retained for free via the contract prior to the change in the law.

‘As you all know the contract has not been amended, the law has been changed, and as things stand accommodation is no longer to be provided across the board for free in England, Scotland and Northern Ireland.’

He added: ‘The way the government has approached this has left students and junior doctors feeling that they cannot trust the government to support them.

‘They have lost the trust of medical students.

‘I call on the relevant authorities to return the provision of free accommodation immediately.

‘We have calculated free accommodation to be worth about £4,800 after tax, on average.

‘We know that some junior doctors will be asked for £7,200, after tax, for accommodation that was previously available for free.

‘I use the word “free” loosely as the provision of accommodation was always used in argument for keeping the salaries of newly graduated doctors artificially low.

‘This is therefore a pay cut of 20% – equating to between £4,800 and £7,200 – from a basic salary of just over £21,000.

‘At the same time junior doctors must repay their ever-increasing debts.

‘Those graduating this year, starting work in just a couple of weeks, are on average £21,000 in debt.

‘Those starting medical school in September, however, can expect to graduate £37,000 in debt.

‘The government say they are interested in widening participation. I suggest to you this is no way to encourage the less well off in our society into medicine.’

He stressed: ‘Application to medical school must be based on ability, aptitude and potential, and not on the wealth of the candidate.’

He added: ‘All we ask for is a fair deal, that does not cripple some with debt, that pays fairly for the work we do when we start working as junior doctors.’

Noble said: ‘Hospital accommodation is a crucial resource, a vital respite during which time junior doctors can start start to chip away at their debt.

‘It offers a safety net for those who find themselves massively in debt, it allows those who, through no fault of their own, must immediately start paying back enormous debts, it allows them to do so.’

He concluded by calling on the government to ‘do the right thing and enter into immediate negotiation with us’ and to ‘return the provision of free hospital accommodation for Foundation Year One doctors with immediate effect.

‘The Welsh Assembly government has managed to do it, so I see no reason why those in England, Scotland and Northern Ireland should not or could not.’

Dr Ram Moorthy, Chairman of the BMA’s Junior Doctor Committee told the meeting: ‘Pre-registration doctors have been provided with free accommodation since the 1950s.

‘The vast majority of newly qualified doctors do take up accommodation in hospital.

‘Now they face paying £400 a month.’

Dr Matt Forbes, a recent medical graduate who will start work in London shortly, said: ‘If I opt for hospital accommodation in London I will be facing a bill of around £600 a month on top of paying living costs and making monthly repayments of hundreds of pounds towards the £35,000 worth of loans I incurred at University.

‘Sadly, getting into this level of debt was necessary to keep me afloat during my six years at medical school.

‘Piling more and more financial pressure onto junior doctors after years of debt accumulation at University will leave many graduates, like me, struggling to pay their bills.

‘I think it also runs the risk of discouraging future generations of students from pursuing a career in medicine in the first place, especially those whose families aren’t in a position to offer them financial support.’

Louise Steele from Oxford told News Line: ‘It’s very scary the financial problems and how we are going to overcome them.

‘Issues such as debt are on our minds when we should be concentrating on learning rather than financial problems.

‘People seem to forget medical students do work in a hospital.

‘As students we are allocated patients to talk to and make sure they are getting the care that they need.

‘As potential doctors we don’t get the same amount of funding as other health care professionals.

‘We are six-year students and we will be earning less than other graduates as junior doctors.